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Eating Your Way Through the Spring Shad Run
By Stephen Sautner

Photo by Jim Leedom

“Too bony…” “Cat food…” “Bury ‘em in the garden…” There’s a lot of hate out there when it comes to the eating qualities of American shad, the oversized herring that, each spring, runs up the Delaware River to spawn, and readily takes a well-cast fly. Ironically, much of this criticism comes from shad anglers themselves, who lob insults at the very fish they have just released. “Cook ‘em on a plank, then throw away the fish and eat the plank! Hyar, hyar hyar!”

Lame.

I’m not sure why shad has fallen out of favor as a food fish among anglers. Its Latin name, after all, is Alosa sapidissima, which translates to the “most delicious herring.” Maybe it’s the stigma of the shad’s myriad bones—it is ridiculously endowed with 1,300 of them. Or perhaps it’s the mechanical catch-and-release ethos that has permeated fly fishing culture. And while I am all for conservation, I am equally in favor of a sustainable, wild-caught meal—particularly one that’s guaranteed as good eats by Linnaeus himself.

Pickled shad and akvavit. The makings of a great night.

My fishing pal Jim Leedom and I have been chasing—and eating—American shad on the Delaware River for close to three decades. We look forward to the annual shad run the same way we would the arrival of any seasonal, local food. A fat springtime shad, properly bled and iced, is as cherished as a quart of wild asparagus harvested from a fallow farm field or a Ziploc bag of morels picked from an ultra-secret woodland (don’t even ask).

You can find shad in many rivers sprinkled throughout the country, from East all the way west to the Columbia.

Come late March or early April, our shad quest begins. I meet Jim at first light in the usual lower river turn-off. We wade to a narrow island then follow a short trail that ends abruptly at a hissing, swirling eddy. Below there, the river regroups then continues along unheeded on its march to the Atlantic. We venture in just knee-deep, wary of a steep drop off and the risk of being swept away. Keeping in mind the brushy island behind me, I roll-cast a chartreuse shad fly of my own making on a fast-sinking shooting head. I allow it to settle for a few seconds before stripping it back with sharp jerks. Jim pitches out a shad dart on spinning gear and swings it through the eddy’s tailout. Despite our dissimilar techniques, our goal is the same: dinner.

Between casts, we blow on our fingers in the early morning chill. Though it’s technically spring, the lower Delaware remains a study of somber grays and browns: the pewter of cold river water, the dark umber of woods still mostly winter-bare. But look closely and there are signs of hope. Some trees are swollen with burgundy buds. Downriver, the first osprey of the year patrols the river channel.

BANG. Shad on. The seven-weight bucks and a spurt of fly line zips from the reel. Here in this heavy water, the goal is to prevent the fish from powering into the main current and blowing out of the eddy. So I exert as much pressure as ten-pound tippet allows. The fish repeatedly tries to turn into the current, but I won’t let it. We-tug-of-war until I can feel the moment when it finally gives up and tacks toward me. I step toward the shore easing it into pebbly shallows. A four-pound female shad, now on its side, repeatedly slaps its tail like a tuna until it beaches itself. It is deep-bodied, thick, and as bright as any steelhead. When the light catches it a certain way, iridescent blushes of pink and purple flash back. Just a day or two earlier, this fish abandoned the tide’s pull for the first time in three years—since before it entered the sea as a migrating juvenile.

Bright and in perfect condition. Photo by Jim Leedom

I kneel down and remove the fly. Then I bleed the fish by grabbing its gill rakers and pulling. I turn and see that Jim has hooked up, too, and I watch as he plays his fish the same way—a down-low slugfest. He lands a similar-sized roe, and it meets the same fate as mine. But then the show is over; a fishless hour later, with the sun now over the ridge on the far side of the river, we reel up our lines and decide to call it a morning. One and done—early season shad fishing can be like that. Back at our cars, we carefully place our respective catches in ice-filled coolers. Then we briefly discuss the fine meal that awaits each of our families, and go our separate ways.

At home, the fish is scaled and filleted, and the orange roe sacks carefully removed. Later, my wife, son, and I will feast on broiled shad seasoned with lemon pepper, along with roe cooked on a bed of thick-cut bacon. The fillets have self-basted in their own fat. Lemon is squeezed generously on both flesh and roe. Then, using either forks or fingers, the shad’s many bones are separated from its nutty, delicate flesh. Roe, fused with crisp bacon, is piled high. The sounds of lip-smacking and a few low “mmmmms” can be heard. If early spring can be rendered into one glorious feast, we are sitting at the head table.

The outcome. Dig in, remember the good times.

Three weeks later, and 50 miles upstream, the river valley has transformed into a chartreuse wonderland. River birches and sycamores burst with new foliage. The first migratory songbirds have arrived: phoebes, towhees, yellow-rumped and pine warblers. A fluty-songed oriole zips from branch-to branch flashing neon orange. Across the river 300 yards away, a bald eagle sits low in its massive nest. Fleece hats and fingerless gloves have long been shed and forgotten. But the river itself is still cool, maybe mid-50s, a perfect temperature for active shad. This spot, a cobble shoal gently giving way to deeper water, suitably lacks the brawling brutality of the lower river.

I stand solo, double-hauling the shooting head. Coils of running line whirl from my stripping basket—essential gear for shad fishing. Then they settle and straighten in the current before I begin retrieving the fly. The key to this fishing is speed—fast, foot-long strips like you were prospecting for bluefish or stripers. The other key is leader length—just two feet of straight ten-pound test and a simple unweighted shad fly—a body of chartreuse ice chenille on a number eight streamer hook is all you need.

The fly stops mid-strip. Keeping the rod pointed at the strike, I jab back with my line hand. First I feel solid thumping weight, then fly line yanks from my hand and out of the basket. I lift the rod, and the reel chatters away. This is open water, so I give the shad room to fight. It responds in-kind with a wild jump and another nice run. It looks to be a male, or buck, of about three pounds. As I bring it closer, a dozen similar-sized shad ghost behind it, curious about its sudden runs and jumps. The hooked fish swims within a few feet of me, prompting the others to peel away two and three at a time. I slide the buck into the shallows and pounce on it.

I clamp the shad to a chain stringer hanging from my wading belt and let it bleed out in the river. But I don’t stop casting. Eight releases later, including a fine roe pushing five pounds, it is time to leave. I bring the buck to my car, where another shad angler has parked next to me in his pick-up. He looks at the fish, and then at me, and asks with a bemused expression: “You’re gonna eat that?”

I place the fish in the cooler, taking my time to make sure it is well-covered in ice, and then say without looking up, “Oh yeah.”

Perfection. Photo by Jim Leedom

This fish is scaled and filleted then cut into smaller chunks. I toss these into a container of briny water where they will soak overnight. The next day, the chunks are rinsed, patted dry, and then placed in a jar with alternate layers of sliced onion and carrots, along with a smashed clove of garlic, a bay leaf, and a teaspoon of chopped fresh dill. Lastly, I pour a heated solution of vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices over the fish, then seal the jar for three days. On the third day, I drain the vinegar and replace it with several generous dollops of sour cream. Then I gently stir until the shad and onions are covered. I now have before me the greatest appetizer ever to adorn a crisp flatbread. A tangy, sweet, briny, firm, and creamy gift from the river gods. The traditional accompaniment is a chaser of freezer-cold Scandinavian aquavit, but Absolut over ice works, too, if you must force me.

By the second week in May, I now find myself almost 100 river miles farther upstream in the Catskills, on the Upper Delaware’s famous trout water. It is late morning. And though caddis bounce over rifles and an occasional stately March Brown rides the currents, it is the shad I still seek. The chartreuse wall of foliage has followed me to this spot, along with what seems like the entire eastern migratory bird population. Vireos, thrushes, tanagers, redstarts, ovenbirds, and various other warblers I can’t identify sing all around me. I look at the riffle chuckling downstream and then the dark mysterious pool a short cast away. Above me, a blue dome with a few lazy cumulus clouds smiles down. I breathe in deep lungfuls of the sweet, earthy aroma of the Delaware River Valley in its full spring splendor. At this moment, calf deep, there may be no better place on the planet.

And I am already into a half-dozen shad. A single buck is tethered to my stringer, which I looped around a partially submerged tree limb. By now, my casting has fallen into a pleasant routine. Shoot the line, aiming for the far shore. Let it sink for two seconds, then begin stripping quickly. Repeat until the line jolts to a halt. Strip-set, then let the shad pull the loose line from the basket until it’s on the reel.

A drift boat approaches from upriver as I fight another fish. Two sports, both decked out in full wild trout armament, stare at me. They look perplexed at the stripping basket and my otherwise minimalist set up (no vest, landing net, or other high-tech accoutrements; just a fly box, nippers, and leader wheel stuffed in the pouch of my waders). The guide, trying to play it cool as only a fishing guide can, says something about how it’s just a shad, and the two sports immediately try to look disinterested. Yet they continue staring as a fat roe damn-near takes me into my backing. They float around the next bend before they can see me land it.

Late that night, I place the shad fillets in a Ziploc bag filled with a solution of water and equal parts kosher salt and sugar. The next morning, I rinse off the brine, blot the fillets with a paper towel, and then let them air dry for an hour. Meanwhile, my trusty Little Chief electric smoker, its insides blackened with a quarter century of sticky tannins and oils, stands at-the-ready. I plug it in, lay the fillets on the rack, and replace the lid. Then I slide in a panful of wood chips. For shad, I use any wood as long as it’s apple. Soon a steady stream of wonderful-smelling smoke trickles from beneath the lid. An hour later, I replace the pan with more chips, and four hours after that, the shad is bronzed with a patina of smoky, caramelized perfection. I will share one fillet with Jim, a surprise for our next fishing trip together. The other one I’m about to devour with my paws like a grizzly bear. I pour myself a chilled mug of spring wheat beer. Then I peel off a piece of shad along the mostly bone-free upper edge. The tang of the apple smoke and the almost creamy flavor of the shad intertwine like two beautifully played musical notes. I sip the cold beer. Then I break off another piece and pick out a prominent Y-bone. I consider it for a few seconds, this quintessential shad calling card, and place it next to the rapidly shrinking fillet.

The basic ingredients—shad roe, bacon, lemon wedges.

This will be my last shad of the season. Many have already started spawning, and some of the early fish are past their prime having burned up much of their fat reserves. I’ll watch them while I cast for trout at last light. The males torpedoing along the surface chasing females. Later in the summer, pools will dimple with shoals of fingerlings dropping back to the ocean.

Before I know it, both the beer and smoked shad are gone; just an empty mug and pile of oddly shaped bones are all that’s left.

You fish enough shad runs and your smoker will tell some history. Long live the Little Chief.

Stephen Sautner
Stephen Sautner has written three books including the acclaimed “Fish On, Fish Off,” and was a longtime contributor to The New York Times “Outdoors” column. He lives in suburban New Jersey and also maintains a fishing camp in the Catskill Mountains.  Learn more at www.stephensautner.com; Twitter: @FishOn_FishOff